Personal Computer, Xerox Alto (the “interim Dynabook”)

Dynabook was at the heart of Xerox PARC. Eventually realized as the Xerox Alto, it is essentially the first personal computer. Easy-to-use with a graphical interface, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) programs, icons, the mouse, networking. Everything we take for granted today started as the Dynabook/Alto.

Background

The Dynabook dates to Kay’s doctoral thesis and the first interview with Xerox. It is the underlying principle behind much of the work at Xerox PARC.

Kay envisioned a computer for just one person. His theoretical computer notebook would cost less than $500 “so that we could give it away in schools.” Compactness was important so “a kid could take it wherever he goes to hide.” Programming should be easy: “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” “A combination of this ‘carry anywhere’ device and a global information utility such as the ARPA network or two-way cable TV will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) to the home.”

Xerox refused to fund the Dynabook, it was an inappropriate project since Xerox PARC was for offices, not children. Subsequently, Kay ignored them, sneaked away and, with the help of Thacker and Lampson, built what became the Alto. Kay referred to the Alto as “the interim Dynabook.”

Xerox: Computers Won’t Make Money

When finished, in 1973, Kay released it with a graphic of Cookie Monster, from Sesame Street, holding the letter C. Xerox built about 2,000 Alto’s for company use but never fully commercialized the computer. A Xerox executive told Taylor “the computer will never be as important to society as the copier.” The Dynabook, the personal computer, did not add shareholder value.

As of mid-2019, Xerox is worth $6.5 billion. Microsoft is worth $1.01 trillion. Apple is worth $874 billion.

Of course, Steve Jobs eventually visited Xerox PARC and rolled many ideas of the Alto into an Apple computer first called the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. Soon after, Microsoft released Windows that looks suspiciously similar.

Laser Printer

Laser printing is the only Xerox research project to generate significant revenue and profit for the company. However, it predates PARC. Subsequently, most Xerox laser printing revenue came from licensing the technology to other firms. Despite their success in the enterprise market and strong brand Xerox never built a widely used Xerox-brand laser printer.

Background

In 1967, Xerox employee Gary Starkweather pondered generating an image rather than copying one from reflected light, the method used in traditional xerography. His idea involved using lasers to create the light on a drum that would subsequently attract toner, similar to a photocopy.

Not surprisingly, given their management skills, Xerox executives hated the idea. Too expensive, too impractical, and who would ever need to create a copy using a laser. Thereupon, they thought up every reason to kill the project, and – demonstrating their only creative abilities – generated a few more.

Starkweather smartly stuck by the idea. A move from the staid Xerox Webster Research Center, in Rochester, to the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox PARC rescued him and his idea.

Xerox Invents Laser Printing

Eventually, his invention came to fruition. The first version was named Scanned Laser Output Terminal, or SLOT. Next came the Ethernet, Alto, Research character generator, Scanned laser output terminal or EARS. Somebody wisely stopped him from trying for a third name and branded it the Xerox 9700.

Despite inventing it, in 1976 IBM beat Xerox to the market with a high-speed industrial printer, the IBM 3800. However, Xerox brought the 9700 to market the next year, in 1977.

Xerox Blows It

Subsequently, Starkweather attempted to pivot to personal laser printers but was stymied, this time successfully, by Xerox management. He argued toner and paper would be more profitable than machines, similar to Gillette’s disposable razor and razor blade approach. Nonsense, argued Xerox executives; Xerox makes money from selling machines, not supplies. Hewitt Packard eventually introduced the first personal laser printer and owned the market.

In 1987, Starkweather quit Xerox to join Apple for a decade and later worked at Microsoft.

Object-Oriented Programming

Object oriented programming is the first of countless Xerox PARC inventions.

Vastly simplifying, there are two ways to program a computer. In procedural programming, each thing the computer does is listed. Conditional statements tell the computer which path to follow.

Comparatively, in object-oriented programming, objects mimic real life. Programmers then act on these objects.

For example, a tree object might have three sub-objects, an oak, a maple, and cherry tree. All three tree types would have a different look when drawn. Each could be chopped down and they’d all be affected by wind. Similarly, if a car drove into a mature tree the car would suffer. However, if a car drove into an immature sapling, then the tree would suffer. There is no need to reprogram the computer for each type of tree.

Many Xerox PARC inventions were the, um, “inspiration” for Steve Jobs and Apple to build the Macintosh. But Jobs did not take Smalltalk and object-oriented programming, something he later regretted.

The first object-oriented programming language developed at Xerox PARC is Smalltalk. Today, C++, Java, C#, and even Javascript are more common. However, they are all object-oriented.

Modern Computing v1: The Mother of All Demos.

On December 9, 1968, the modern world was born.

Background

Douglas Engelbart, working for the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) showed the future of modern computing to a roomful of people that, for the most part, understood virtually none of it.

In a tour de force, Engelbart introduced the world to video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, copy and paste, hypermedia, object addressing and dynamic file linking, and collaborative real-time editing.

Additionally, he also demonstrated a new type of input device, a block of wood that tracked hand movement and had only three buttons. His team referred to it as a mouse, a name that stuck. Surprisingly, they worked with the computer interactively, rather than running a program with a set of data that then produced a result or stored the data on tape. Interactive computing was rare but not unheard of: Sutherland’s Sketchpad program was interactive.

Officially, Engelbart presented a paper entitled A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect. Unofficially, Engelbart referred to it as The Mother of All Demos.

Engelbart’s mentors included computer visionaries J.C.R. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor, and Larry Roberts, all working for DARPA. Eventually, Robert Taylor would go on to lead the development of similar work at Xerox PARC.

Reception

During the demo, about 1,000 computer scientists gathered in Melo Park, California. Markedly, two computers were networked together, one running the demo and another back at the office. With each innovation, Sutherland announced “Look what else we can do here,” a theme Apple’s Steve Jobs would pick up decades later as “Just one more thing.”

The vast majority used computers with punch cards in their daily lives. They watched Engelbart and, according to him, filed out without asking a question or saying a word. To computer scientists of this era, the technology looked more science fiction than anything real. Surprisingly to Engelbart, they weren’t sure what anybody would do with it.

Engelbart introduces and demonstrates videoconferencing

Engelbart’s research was sponsored by the Advanced Research Project Agency (the precursor to DARPA), NASA, and the US Air Force.

Most of Engelbart’s innovations lay in the lab until adopted first by Xerox PARC and, eventually, by Apple, Microsoft, and countless others. Engelbart never embraced the idea of individual personal computers — he preferred large central computers — and declined to participate in future work.

The Mother of All Demos